Drugs of a Feather: Jeff Noon’s Vurt 20 Years On

A young boy puts a feather into his mouth… The Stash Riders: Scribble, Beetle, Bridget, Mandy, Tristan and Suze… The Thing from Outer Space, Game Cat, Dingo Tush, Bottletown, robodogs, droidlocks, and dreamsnakes… It’s about drugs and droogs. It’s about their misadventures in this and that Other world: Vurt. Scribble’s sister, his lover, Desdemona is lost, lost to the Vurt, that feathered, nethered world spinning somewhere inside of this one. If he is to get her back, if he is to grab her, he has to let go of something else.

Jeff Noon: Vurt

I’m not telling this very well. I’m asking for your trust on this one. Here I am, surrounded by wine bottles and mannequins, salt cellars and golf clubs, car engines and pub signs. There are a thousand things in this room, and I am just one of them. The light is shining through my windows, stuttered by bars of iron, and I’m trying to get this down with a cracked-up genuine antique word processor, the kind they just don’t make any more, trying to find the words.
Sometimes we get the words wrong.
Sometimes we get the words wrong!
Jeff Noon‘s Vurt, (p. 151)

In his introduction to Noon’s Cobralingus (Codex, 2001), Michael Bracewell writes, “Much of Noon’s best known imagery… derives its power from the literalizing of poetic language and the concretizing of images: the sudden opening up, within the landscape of the prose itself, of new routes to character and narrative, enabled by altering the meanings of words within the containers of their language” (p. 6). The Shining Girls author, Lauren Beukes says that Vurt blew her mind, “not just for the story and the characters which absolutely caught the mood of where we were, but pushed language in insanely playful ways and delivered a kicker of an ending.” In her introduction to the new edition, she cites Noon’s best known aphorism: “Form is the host; content is the virus.” To wit, Vurt‘s virus has infected everything from Beukes’ Moxyland (Angry Robot, 2008) to Steven Hall’s The Raw Shark Texts (Canongate, 2007).

According to Jeff Noon, Vurt started as half a play. “I’d spent a good number of years trying to make some money by writing plays, with no real success,” he writes, “So I took a job at Waterstone’s bookshop in Manchester. Someone else working there was a fringe theater director and was always asking me to write him a play.” Noon took Octave Mirbeau’s 1899 novel The Torture Garden and adapted it through the then new idea of virtual reality news of which was trickling over from America via magazines like Mondo 2000. When his director friend moved to Hong Kong, another co-worker started a small press and, being a fan of his plays, asked Noon to try writing a novel. He agreed. “And quite naturally,” he adds, “I took the basic plot I’d added to The Torture Garden as my starting point. It grew organically from that seed.”

Why? A voice told me to do it.
Which voice? The one that never stops.
— Jeff Noon’s Vurt, (p. 177)

VurtI found Vurt via the blurbs on the back of Doug Rushkoff‘s first novel, Ecstasy Club (1997), sometime during the wild-at-heart and weird-on-top 1990s. The music of that time is woven deep in the language of Vurt. Music is “without doubt my favourite art form,” says Noon, “and the one that saturates my waking life from morning till night. So, I always try to use techniques invented by musicians in my novels and stories, simply because musicians seem to get there first these days, in terms of an avant–pulp interface.” Among its pages you can hear the manic Madchester music of Happy Mondays, Stone Roses, The Charlatans, and Inspiral Carpets. Bracewell writes, “More than any other writer of his generation, Jeff Noon has assimilated the techniques developed in the recording of music and pioneered their literary equivalents” (p. 5), and Noon explains, “My main insight was to realize that words, whilst seemingly fixed in meaning, are in fact a liquid medium. They flow. The writer digs channels, steers the course.”

Through the looking-glass course of Vurt, one can see shades of Twin Peaks, A Clockwork Orange, Neuromancer, Snow Crash, Star Wars, Donnie Darko, and Philip K. Dick, among other things. Vurt won the Arthur C. Clarke Award in 1994, and William Gibson called it “really fresh and peculiar at a time when we were constantly being told that lots of SF novels were really fresh and peculiar, but they often weren’t, particularly.” It is certainly fresh and peculiar — even now. The thing that makes it not only so poignant but also timeless is its passion. Under all of the made-up slang, vivid imagery, adjacent dimensions, drug talk, and other detritus of rave culture, there lies the urgency of a real human heart beating, the heart of a writer who cares about things.

Noon says of Vurt, “Like many a first novel it came out of a weird Venn diagram of influences: Gibson, Ballard, Borges, Lewis Carroll, techno music, dub culture, Mondo 2000, graphic novels, 1970s punk, and everyday life in the North of England in 1993. It’s amazing to think that Vurt is still on its journey, still travelling, and still finding new readers.” The newly released 20th Anniversary Edition boasts a new three-part introduction by the always stellar Lauren Beukes that makes me feel like I can’t write about anything, much less about a book as imaginative and innovative as this. It should also be noted that new new edition is set in a much more readable font than the original version and hosts three new short stories set in the wild, weird world of Vurt. So, if you’ve yet to take the trip, your yellow feather awaits.


We’re all out there, somewhere, waiting to happen.
— Jeff Noon’s Vurt, (p. 87)

Hustle and Flow: Hip-hop Theory and Praxis

The once quotable KRS-One once said, “The essence of Hip-hop truly is the transformation of existing objects and forms.” In Rhymin’ and Stealin’: Musical Borrowing in Hip-hop (University of Michigan Press, 2013), Justin A. Williams takes KRS at his word and starts from the fundamental assumption that Hip-hop comes from putting together pieces of the past. Whether or not sampling and remix are legitimate cultural practices shouldn’t even be a debate anymore, and, Rhymin' and Stealin'thankfully, Williams’ concerns go much further than that.

Citing Serge Lacasse, he draws an important distinction between sampled and nonsampled quotation (the former being the straight appropriation of previously recorded material, and the latter being like the variations on a theme found in jazz: performed not cut-and-pasted), and in Chapter 4 “The Martyr Industry,” he tackles the haunting of Hip-hop by its fallen emcees, writing,

Rappers who sample martyrs such as Tupac Shakur and Notorious B.I.G. add to the creation of new identities, tributes that often become part of new narratives within the imagined community of hip-hop culture (p. 109).

In that chapter, Williams cites songs by Nas and Jay-Z who were both contemporaries of Tupac and Biggie. In Chapter 5, “Borrowing and Lineage,” Williams goes on to cover Eminem and 50 Cent, neither of whom were famous recording artists until after Tupac and Biggie passed the mic. Their collaborations with the dead emcees align them with the fallen rappers. Williams also does an adept job of illustrating how the concepts of lineage, continuity, and community come not only from the songs but from the fans and the press.

Williams’ approach is interdisciplinary, drawing not only from the usual cultural studies and aesthetics but also from musicology and history, as well as the evolution of technology. All of this makes Rhymin’ and Stealin’ a unique and informative read on a shelf otherwise crowded with similarities.

How to Rap 2Another recent standout is How to Rap 2: Advanced Flow and Delivery Techniques by Paul Edwards (Chicago Review Press, 2013), the follow-up to his essential How to Rap: The Art and Science of the Hip-hop MC (Chicago Review Press, 2009). Edwards’ books analyze rapping techniques from the practitioner’s point of view. This gives them a much different feel from the many studies concerned with aspects of poetics, literature, and figurative language use. That is, when you’re thinking of how words go together best and sound good together, you don’t care whether it’s assonance or antanaclasis, asterismos or anthimeria. You only care if it sounds dope or not.

Not that Edwards’ language isn’t precise — it is — the focus is on technique though, not analysis. Shit like Shock G’s Humpty Hump voice being an impression of the Warner Brothers Frog, which is itself an impression of Bing Crosby; using the impermanence of a verse to experiment with it; and trying out bars that don’t or barely rhyme: That’s what this book is about.

Continuing the care he took in part one, Edwards asks advanced wordsmiths for advice on rhythm, melody, pitch, timing, enunciation, percussion, playing characters, rhyme schemes, and rhyme patterns. Among the experts included are Cage Kennylz, Royce Da 5’9″, Brother Ali, Buckshot, The Pharcyde, Del the Funky Homosapien, Souls of Mischief, Freestyle Fellowship, Q-Tip, One Be Lo, Planet Asia, Sean Price, and my dude Aesop Rock, among many others. It’s a who’s who of lyrical prowess opened with a foreword by Gift of Gab.

Just when you thought there were already too many books on Hip-hop, these two essential texts come out, showing two more directions in which Hip-hop truly is about transforming and transcending.

Not Yet Remembered: Prog and Brian Eno

The nerds have come a long way since I realized I was one of them in middle school. Now we’re all grown up, and obsessions and interests once broached with hesitant caution and hidden with extreme care are now discussed openly. Sometimes the obscurity of the subjects and the depth of the minutia is too much to take.

Yes is the AnswerProg rock seems to be the only thing not reaping the benefits of the revenge of the nerds. Still maligned by a geeky stench and stigma, it is seemingly enjoyed by many but visibly championed by few. To defend prog, as Rick Moody puts it, is to defend the indefensible.

Well, Moody and many other literary-minded word-nerds do just that in Yes is the Answer (And Other Prog-Rock Tales), edited by Marc Weingarten and Tyson Cornell (Rare Bird, 2013). It’s not all about Yes, Moody takes a stance on Emerson, Lake, and Palmer, Tom Junod parses the power of Peter Gabriel, Rodrigo Fresán attempts to align A Clockwork Orange and Pink Floyd’s The Wall, John Albert transcends hoodrat status by recounting his seeing King Crimson live, Beth Lisick explains the undeniable import of Rush‘s “Tom Sawyer,” and the inimitable James Greer illuminates how Robert Pollard is as Guided by Gabriel as he is The Beatles. These essays all have varying degrees of success, but hell, I even like Jim DeRogatis’ piece.

With that said, this might not be the first book-length discussion or defense of the importance of prog (see Bill Martin’s stuffy Listening to the Future or Paul Hegarty and Martin Halliwell’s spotty Beyond and Before), but it’s definitely the most readable and goes the longest way to returning prog to its status as a respectable musical genre.

From Brian Eno's "77 Million Paintings"
Images from Brian Eno’s “77 Million Paintings”

Few people even marginally associated with prog are as universally revered as Brian Eno. Outside of being recognized as the inventor and purveyor of ambient music, Eno is largely associated with the other four-letter word of 1970s rock, but his first solo works were collaborations with prog guitarist Robert Fripp. His early solo records boast appearances by members of Genesis, Soft Machine, Hawkwind, Can, Cluster, and several from King Crimson, among many others. Not to mention the “Enossification” of parts of The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway (as Junod discusses in Yes is the Answer).

Brian Eno: Visual MusicBrian Eno: Visual Music by Christopher Scoates (Chronicle Books, 2013) documents Eno’s thought and thinking through many of his records and art installations. The book is a wealth of visual stimuli, with photos from throughout his career, as well as drawings and diagrams from his own notebooks: from his collaboration with Peter Schmidt on the Oblique Strategies cards (see below) to his musical work with David Byrne and Talking Heads, David Bowie, and his solo work. There are also written contributions from Scoates, Roy Ascott, Brian Dillon, Steve Dietz, and Eno himself. In addition, there’s a transcript from a lengthy dialogue between game designer Will Wright and Brian Eno, and not the one previously available from The Long Now Foundation but a new one entirely.

The stills from Eno’s “77 Million Paintings” evoke something Marcel Duchamp once said: “I was interested in ideas–not merely in visual products. I wanted to put painting once again at the service of the mind.” The same could be said of any of Eno’s many projects. Scoates’ Brian Eno: Visual Music is an essential collection for anyone interested in one the most important thinkers, musicians, and working artists of our time.

From the original Oblique Strategies, 1974
Handwritten cards from the original Oblique Strategies, 1974.

Brian Eno once defined a nerd as “a human being without enough Africa in him or her,” and it seems the nerds have risen above their lack of Africa, except perhaps where prog is concerned, but there still may come a day…